A Letter from America XIII: The John Carter Brown Library (April)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

It is perhaps ironic that the library which has most extensively explored national origins in early America is the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, known to its friends as the JCB. The library, devoted to collecting the history of the Americas (in fact the Western Hemisphere, which brings in a number of Pacific Islands) up to 1800, was begun in 1845 by the self-same John Carter Brown, and continued to be a family concern even after it was given to Brown a century ago. You may have guessed that the same family started the University, and they were well established in America long before that. No one would have mistaken JCB’s great-grandson, the late Carter Brown for an immigrant. The former director of the National Gallery of Art (and more lately chairman of JCB’s board), who died last year, was an American patrician to his fingertips. But at the National Gallery Carter Brown presided over the opening up of the institution to the masses and was one of the creators of the "blockbuster" exhibition concept. In a quieter way the JCB, under director Norman Fiering, has taken on a much more public face, especially through a superb series of exhibitions and accompanying catalogues. Four of these exhibitions, so far, have explored the relationship of a European country or region with the Americas up to 1800; Italy, France, Scotland, and Holland.

The first of these JCB catalogues, THE ITALIANS AND THE CREATION OF AMERICA, was issued in 1980, and was prepared by then staff member (now bookseller) Samuel Hough. This show remains, for me, a landmark in library exhibitions for its concept and execution, exploring a broad range of themes in exploration, cartography, historiography, literature and the arts, medicine, religion, political thought and the American Revolution, and the impact of American discovery on Italy as well as vice-versa. Most importantly, the catalogue was published (although the show was actually in 1976). All too often book exhibitions have not had accompanying publications, without which they quickly cease to exist except in the mind of the persons who assembled them. In this case, it brought to the fore, with cogent annotations, a broad range of little-known books as well as celebrating more famous ones.

The next JCB national catalogue was LES NOUVELLES FRANCES: FRANCE IN AMERICA, 1500-1815, by Philip Boucher, issued in 1989. This work took a fresh, and I think most useful and stimulating, approach to an exhibition catalogue. Instead of listing the items in order, with author, title, description, etc. – the usual progression of any bibliographical work – Boucher wrote a narrative text that took as its primary sources 133 works listed at the beginning. These were then referenced by bold-face numbers in the text as the significance of that work in the overall narrative was discussed. I love this approach, particularly suited to the book person who wants to read a narrative history that will point up the role of books they have encountered in a larger historical context. It also solved a problem which I have encountered several times – that the best way to lay out an exhibition in the available showcases may not be the best way to present them in a catalogue. Since the exhibition is ephemeral, and the catalogue is hopefully going to be useful for a long time, why bother? Boucher’s remains one of my favorite book exhibition catalogues.

In 1995 a collaborative effort produced SCOTLAND AND THE AMERICAS, 1600-1800. Here the approach was a series of topics explored in depth, with different authors taking such themes as "Education" or "Colonial Warfare and Imperial Identity" and illuminating each with annotated entries on the items shown. The catalogue also included a "Bibliographical Supplement", a concept begun in other JCB catalogues, moving all of the picky collation and citation detail the book folks like so much to an appendix in the back. This removes clutter from the narrative flow of the show, and actually allows for more bibliographical annotation.

THE DUTCH IN THE AMERICAS, 1600-1800, by Wim Klooster, came out in 1997. This catalogue, discussing 190 different works, returns to the narrative approach of Boucher, but is far more richly illustrated. Not only are there illustrations and maps from the original works, with a color section, but also most useful modern maps to orient the reader (very helpful for those confused about the Guianas). The only failing is the lack of an index, which would be most useful.

This is hardly the end of JCB’s nationally oriented projects. Catalogues of the Portuguese and German books in the library have long been in the works, and other exhibitions have highlighted distinctively Spanish and English aspects of early American history. And of course the JCB is the parent of one of the great bibliographical efforts in the field, EUROPEAN AMERICANA, 1493-1750. Almost all of these works are still in print, along with others I don’t have space to mention, from The John Carter Brown Library, P.O. Box 1894, Providence, Rhode Island 02912. Get some and see what a research tool – and collecting guide – these entertaining and scholarly exhibition catalogues can be.

– William S. Reese